Monday, 13 June 2011

Traddies Guide to Scripture, Part III: The ecclesial context

In the last part of this series on suggestions for the theology student in arming themselves to counter the modernism and worse that they will most likely encounter in a University-level theology course on Scripture, I suggested a thorough immersion in what the Magisterium actually teaches about how to approach Biblical exegesis.

In this part, I want to turn to some resources on how to approach the task of exegesis for yourself, picking up particularly on what I think is the absolutely key, central message of Pope Benedict XVI's Verbum Domini, namely the "ecclesial context".

Scriptural interpretation needs to start from the Tradition

The starting point for most modern exegetes is usually the text itself, taken as if sprung into being in  isolation from the Church.  The key to interpretation in this view, are the internal clues as to its construction and composition, and perhaps some contextual information on literary genre and historical context at the time of its composition and/or editing.

But the traditional starting point for approaching Scripture, as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in Verbum Domini, is exactly the opposite: we should start, he argues, from "the ecclesial context", the Tradition:

"Here we can point to a fundamental criterion of biblical hermeneutics: the primary setting for scriptural interpretation is the life of the Church. This is not to uphold the ecclesial context as an extrinsic rule to which exegetes must submit, but rather is something demanded by the very nature of the Scriptures and the way they gradually came into being. “Faith traditions formed the living context for the literary activity of the authors of sacred Scripture. Their insertion into this context also involved a sharing in both the liturgical and external life of the communities, in their intellectual world, in their culture and in the ups and downs of their shared history...The Bible is the Church’s book, and its essential place in the Church’s life gives rise to its genuine interpretation.....Saint Jerome recalls that we can never read Scripture simply on our own. We come up against too many closed doors and we slip too easily into error."

What does this mean in practice?  I'm not going to attempt to be comprehensive here, but rather to highlight a few key points that I think tend to be frequently neglected, and point to some resources for further reading in relation to them.  Others may have other suggestions...

One important issue here is the question of languages and translation versions - but this is a controversial one, so I'll devote a later post to the topic by itself.

Scripture interprets Scripture

An obvious - but often neglected - starting point is to read any particular Scriptural passage in the light of the rest of Scripture, as Pope Benedict XVI also points out.  The New Testament frequently cites Old Testament passages in ways that both teach us how to interpret Scripture, most particularly highlighting the spiritual meanings of texts, and throwing additional light on both the Old and New Testament passages concerned.  Indeed, even the selection of a particular word to convey a particular concept is often significant, suggesting a host of associated allusions. 

So one of the first things to do as you read a passage is to read all of the associated passages to it.  One of the strengths of the Navarre Commentaries is that they do include a reasonably comprehensive concordance.  But you can buy concordances separately, or find them online. 

For individual words in the Vulgate, a very useful resource is Vulgate search. Another useful tool is Strong's Concordance which gives a link to the Greek or Hebrew for every word in the King James Version.

This is just a starting point however - we are not 'sola scriptura' believers!  We also need to look to the 'monuments of tradition' to tell us about how a text has been understood by the Church.

The witness of the liturgy

If one reads the biblical exegesis of the Holy Father, you will notice that he frequently draws on the witness of the liturgy, iconography, architecture and more.  We should too.

In particular we should look to the liturgy.  The texts (including the propers of the Mass) assigned to feasts and Sundays, and the structure of the (traditional) liturgical calendar are a key source of witness to what the Church has always believed, and how it understands particular doctrines and saints.

Take a look for example at the encyclicals promulgating the Marian doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption, which certainly looked at the liturgical history of these feasts for evidence of this.   Similarly, St Augustine suggests that the feast of the Ascension was apostolic in origin, thus giving witness to the Church's literal belief in the timetable set out in Acts!

And it is in this area that the poverty of the Novus Ordo calendar becomes particularly evident.  Take for example the identification of St Mary Magdalene as the penitent woman in Luke 7.  The Western tradition has always held that they are the same person, and this is reflected in the use of Luke 7 as the Gospel on her feastday in the Extraordinary Form.  In the Ordinary Form however the text has been changed...

My suggestion would be firstly if you are looking at a particular text, try and find out where and when it is used in the liturgy, and consider what can be learned from that context.  Secondly, if you are making an attempt to read the entire Bible (as every student should!), don't start at Genesis and read in order.  Instead, adopt an order that reflects the flow of the Church's calendar, such as one of these bible reading plans, which broadly follow the flow of readings at Matins.

The saints

A third vital source pointed to in Verbum Domni is what the saints - and particularly what the Fathers, Doctors and Theologians - down the ages have said about a particular text.

It is important to note here that the Fathers have a privileged status in the Church. 

Nonetheless, those who want to artificially reject anyone writing after a certain period, be it the post-Nicene Fathers, anything post William of Ockham (on the grounds of infection from nominalism), post-Trent or post-Vatican II, seem to me to be making the same mistake as those who want to reject anything written before a certain date (such as 1960!).

Key online resources for the student working in English are:
  • Text Week's Scriptural index provides links to pre- and some post-Nicene Fathers, and some other useful later ones commentaries in particular (ignore the protestant commentaries also there though!);
  • the Congregation for the Clergy's Bibliacerus is not exactly user friendly way, but does provide very vital links by Scripture verse(s) to selected patristic and later commentaries, as well as Magisterial references;
  • the excellent New Advent Fathers has many patristic commentaries available, worth taking a look through; and
  • a Dominican site provides comprehensive links to St Thomas Aquinas' commentaries.
There are also a number of series dedicated to putting out key commentaries in translation.  Of these, a very useful starting point compilation is the Ancient Christian Commentaries on Scripture series, which provides a selection of patristic commentaries arranged by chapter and verse.  While the selection of commentaries can, depending on the individual editors, be a little eclectic (this is after all an ecumenical project!) they are a very useful starting point.

How do you put this all together?

The key to pulling all of this material though, is above all the four senses of Scripture set out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  One very helpful exposition of what the four senses are, and how to find them, is Roman Theological Forum series of 'lessons'.  I don't totally agree with their spin, but I do think the material there is well worth a read.


Schütz said...

Dear Kate,

I appreciate what you are trying to say in this series - although at times I think you are over-reacting to the "danger" of the various "critical" methods of biblical scholarship.

Be that as it may, a couple of comments:

1) I think you might be mixing up "starting point" with "context", when you say that the "starting point" for exegesis should be Tradition rather than the text itself. If you are doing authentic exegesis, and not eisogesis, the "starting point" must always be "the text itself". The "context", of Catholic exegesis at least, is the community of the Church (including both the historically received tradition and the liturgy).

As an analogy, if you wanted to study Gorillas, you would gain much more accurate knowledge of them if you studied them in their actual forest setting in Africa than if you were to study them in the context of, for instance, a zoo. The gorilla itself remains the "starting point" of the investigation, but the "context" is the gorilla's natural habitat rather than the zoo. Nevertheless, there may be findings that biologists working with gorillas in zoos have discovered that you couldn't discover in the jungle, for instance, their genetic code. So, someone who studies gorillas in the jungle will understand the animal much better, but there is knowledge gained about this animal from outside the forest that is still useful, if not divorced from that context.

By analogy, the Tradition/Liturgy is the natural context for the studying of the scriptures, only within which one will gain a true understanding of the text. But the starting point of exegesis must still be the text itself, and the knowledge gained by those who have studied the text outside this context may still be valuable.

2) It might interest you to know that "Scripture interprets Scripture" is a favourite hermeneutical principle of the Protestant tradition. I don't know if it was formulated first by Catholic exegetes - perhaps it was. But in any case, this is a principle shared by both Catholics and Protestants.

Kate said...

David - I'm not sure whether we are really differing here. I'm certainly not saying don't look at the text (hence my intro noting the issue of translations, and conclusion on the four senses of Scripture), I'm saying look at it in its proper context, in the proper way.

To take up your gorilla analogy, start from the proper surrounding environment in which the animal lives, then look at the animal itself.

And to take your analogy a little further, if one was looking at gorilla behaviour in the zoo one would expect it to be somewhat different to behavior in the wild -toned down and distorted (the WWJD crowd!). At least on behavioural things, it tells you about how animals behave in zoos, not about how animals behave when in their proper environment.

A better analogy though I think is one I heard Bishop Elliot use of the family photo album - the Bible is like a book of photos of people and occasions whose nature one can guess at from the photo itself, but our guesses may well be wrong, unless of course one uses the key of tradition to know who and why they are captured for posterity there.

On scripture interprets Scripture, whoever coined the phrase (and I'm pretty sure it was actually catholic), it is certainly a catholic one - we also describe it in part as viewing Scripture in the analogy of faith. But the key difference is that the protestant sola scriptura version of the principle distorts it to make it an end point rather than a beginning point. My point is that too many modern exegetes see the Old Testament as a rupture, something entirely at odds with the New, rather than the new hidden in the Old, and Old illuminating the New.